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Women’s advocacy groups have persuaded Congress to begin intensive Title IX equity reviews of science programs. This is a bad idea. It will harm students and professors of both sexes and will adversely affect American academic science.
Christina Hoff Sommers
Women have achieved or exceeded parity with men in most academic fields but continue to be less numerous in the physical sciences, engineering, and math. For many equity activists, this state of affairs constitutes a serious problem, even a “crisis,” that cries out for rigorous federal regulation of female-deficient fields. Groups such as the American Association of University Women and the National Women’s Law Center are mobilizing for the active application of Title IX–the celebrated antidiscrimination law well known to college athletic directors–to academic science as well. Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma and ardent supporter of the Title IX cause, says, “We have studied this problem to death, we have analysis paralysis. Many women are ready for some action” (Schubert, 2005).
Action they are getting. A bi-partisan group of legislators, led by Senators Ron Wyden and Barbara Boxer, has charged the Department of Education and other grant-making federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation to carry out “stringent” Title IX equity reviews of programs where women are “under-represented.” The reviews are now underway. Federal monitors have already visited engineering and physics programs at Columbia, Harvard, MIT, the universities of Wisconsin and Maryland, and other top schools. If all goes as planned, the investigations will grow and intensify and produce enforceable requirements (never called “quotas” of course) that hiring and promotion decisions be skewed to produce gender parity. That will gratify gender activists, but it is a terrible idea. It will harm students and professors of both sexes and will adversely affect American academic science.
Anyone who thinks that the predictions of hiring and promotion quotas and stigma are scare-talk, or who doubts that a radical transformation of American science is in prospect, should listen to the Title IX crusade’s champions.
“What Title IX has achieved on the playing field remains undone in the classroom,” says Senator Wyden (2003). Has Wyden or his Congressional colleagues considered what is actually going on in American classrooms? Women are out-performing men in most fields and at all levels. Women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 59 percent of master’s degrees; and, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, “2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women.” Today women serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. A recent study by the California Postsecondary Education Commission found that women now prevail in degree programs once dominated by men. In the UC system, women earn 57 percent of the degrees in law; 62 percent in dentistry; 73 percent in optometry; 77 percent in pharmacy; and 82 percent in veterinary medicine. The study’s authors concluded, “The magnitude of the issue [of male disadvantage] is large” (California Postsecondary Education Commission, 2006). Thomas Mortenson, a scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, half-jokingly quipped that if current trends continue, the last male will graduate from college in 2068.
Women’s advocates have countered that the problem of male underachievement has been “manufactured” as part of a “continuing backlash against the women and girls.” In a new study, the AAUW claims that the real gap in education is along racial and ethnic, not gender, lines–suburban white young men are doing just fine. But the evidence is dramatically at odds with this claim. Young black women are twice as likely to go to college as black men, and at some of the prestigious historically black colleges the numbers are truly ominous–Fisk is now 72 percent female; Clark Atlanta, 72 percent; Howard, 65 percent. Meanwhile, the American Council on Education reports that the fastest growing gender gap of any group since 1995 has been in white working-class students; Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania is a typical example, with a 2008 graduating class that was 2/3 female. What about those middle-class white boys? Department of Education data show that among high achieving white students from privileged backgrounds, girls are academically stronger in nearly every category. To give just one example: by the end of high school, 27 percent of the white sons of college educated parents score “below basic” in reading skills; for females in the same group, the figure is 7 percent. It is odd that Congress would choose this moment for a women’s equity campaign when it is young men who are languishing academically.
The Title IX activists are persuaded that women are being held back because of bias and a “hostile environment.” But there are other, more plausible, explanations. Perhaps the relative paucity of women in physics and engineering reflects women’s preferences and aspirations. This is a controversial proposition, but the research on gender and vocation is robust and growing. In 2007, the American Psychological Association published a collection of papers by more than twenty scholars entitled, Why Aren’t More Women in Science: Top Researchers Debate the Evidence. Several made a strong case for bias; but an equal number made an equally strong case that biologically based sex differences explained the math and science gap. Also in 2007, Joshua L. Rosenbloom of the University of Kansas and colleagues published a meticulous study demonstrating that men and women differ systematically in their interests and that these differences can account for a large share of the gender gap in information technology occupations.
We may not fully understand why women prefer veterinary medicine to mechanical engineering, or why men are far more likely to major in electrical engineering than early childhood education. But with women doing so very well in fields they are entering–include technically demanding ones such as biology and veterinary medicine–it is hardly “analysis paralysis” to suggest that the preference explanation deserves further consideration before the apparatus of Title IX is extended from the athletic fields to classrooms and research labs. It makes little sense to bring teams of federal investigators into engineering and physics departments to investigate allegedly “hostile environments” when there is significant doubt that the environment is the problem. Nor, for that matter, do we want monitors from the National Endowment for the Humanities making site visits to Art History and English departments on behalf of “underrepresented” men.
That is especially the case when one considers the risks of Title IX regulation. Science is not a sport. In science, men and women play on the same teams. Very few women can compete on equal terms with men in lacrosse, wrestling, or basketball; by contrast, there are many brilliant women in the top ranks of every field of science and technology, and no one doubts their ability to compete on equal terms. That could change. If the Title IX movement gains traction, it will create a two-tier system: men will gain entrance to prestigious math and science programs based on merit; women–on a combination of merit and gender. What is the point? Women are overtaking men in fields like biology, psychology, and veterinary medicine entirely without benefit of affirmative action programs or threats of lawsuits. Does anyone seriously doubt that the Title IX compliance programs will stigmatize women–including those who have succeeded through hard work, ambition, passionate interest, and sheer talent?
Women’s groups vehemently deny that Title IX will lead to quotas. “Title IX does not in any way require quotas,” says the National Women’s Law Center (2002). “It simply requires that schools allocate participation opportunities nondiscriminatorily.” But over the years, this diffuse requirement has been interpreted by judges, Department of Education officials, college administrators, and women’s groups to mean that women are entitled to “statistical proportionality.” That is to say, if a college’s student body is 60 percent female, then 60 percent of the athletes should be female–even if far fewer women than men are interested in playing sports at that college. But many athletic directors have been unable to attract the same proportions of women as men. To avoid government harassment, loss of funding, and lawsuits, they have simply eliminated men’s teams. That kind of regulatory calibration–call it reductio ad feminem–would do serious harm to fields that drive the economy, such as math, physics and computer science.
The Title IX crusade is gathering momentum. Anyone who thinks that the predictions of hiring and promotion quotas and stigma are scare-talk, or who doubts that a radical transformation of American science is in prospect, should listen to the crusade’s champions. Richard Zare (2006), Chair of Chemistry at Stanford and avid title-niner, hails the movement as a “tsunami . . . approaching the quiet shores of academia.” Equity activist Debra Rolison, a senior research chemist at the Pentagon’s Naval Research Laboratory, is thrilled by what she sees as the creative destruction inherent in the Title IX initiative–she calls it a “not-yet-realized earthquake” (see Wilson and Birchard, 2006).
Senator Wyden and other members of Congress are charged with protecting the American economy–and shielding the educational system that sustains it. Attacking science education with an implacable hammer–or encouraging earthquakes or tsunamis–is recklessly at odds with that mission.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident fellow at AEI.
California Postsecondary Education Commission (2006). The gender gap in California higher education: A follow-up. Retrieved September 4, 2008 from http://www.cpec.ca.gov/completereports/2006reports/06-23.pdf
National Women’s Law Center (2002). Debunking the myths about Title IX and athletics. Retrieved September 4, 2008 from http://www.aahperd.org/NAGWS/titleix/pdf/DebunkingTheMyths.pdf
Schubert, S. (2005). Sports law could even the score for women in science. Nature Medicine, 11. Retrieved September 4, 2008 from http://www.nature.com/nm/journal/v11/n5/full/nm0505-462b.html
Wilson and Birchard (2006). Looking for gender equity in the lab. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 4, 2008 from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i20/20a01901.htm
Wyden, R. (2003). Title IX and women in academics. Computing Research News,15(4), pp. 1, 8.
Zare, R.N. (2006). Sex, lies, and Title IX. Chemical and Engineering News. Retrieved September 4, 2008 from http://pubs.acs.org/cen/education/84/8420education.html
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